How humans will survive in a million years

An interview with the author of a new book about mass human extinction, space elevators and more

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
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A Geminid meteor streaks across the sky over Steamboat Springs, Colo., on Dec. 12, 2010.

If you’ve ever worried, or even wondered, about the ultimate fate of humanity itself, then here is the book for you: In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Analee Newitz takes on the enormous topic of “how humans will survive a mass extinction.”

As that phrase (the book’s subtitle) indicates, Newitz proves to be an optimist about the science and potential technologies of long-term survival — but she didn’t start out that way. And while she makes her case in conversational tones, her argument reflects sweeping research: Methodically but entertainingly walking the reader through evolutionary history starting with mass-extinction events from billions of years ago, she works her way into the laboratories of contemporary researchers devising hard-to-believe innovations to save humanity from every future calamity you can imagine. Along the way the reader meets techno-thinkers and scientists grappling with pandemics and other threats, devising wild-sounding bio-energy alternatives, "converting urban spaces into biological organisms," preparing for the possibility of a planet-threatening asteroid, storing the sum of human knowledge in a discreet set of computer files and figuring out various methods of traveling to other planets — including a “space elevator.”

By the end of the journey, you can see why Newitz is optimistic that tech innovations could help our species persist for another million years. But should you believe it? We had some questions. Happily, Newitz had answers.

You write that you "set out to write a book about how we are all doomed," but you ended up writing about ensuring humanity's next million years of not being doomed. Was that a gradual shift in your thinking, or were there particular turning-point moments in your reporting and research?

The first turning point came when I was learning about the survivors of the Great Dying, a mass extinction 250 million years ago which took out 95% of all species on the planet. It was the worst mass extinction in Earth's history, caused by disastrous climate changes in the wake of a super volcano. And yet a humble little creature called Lystrosaurus (whom I've written about here), who looked something like a cross between a pig and a lizard, managed to survive this horrific period. Pretty much every other animal on land went extinct. And Lystrosaurus survived just by sleeping in protected underground burrows, and walking into new environments where it adapted to the new world that was emerging in death's wake. I figured that if this little pig-lizard could do it, so could we. I think at that point I realized that humans are no worse and no better than other animals — we are so good at adapting to new circumstances that it's likely we'll follow in Lystrosaurus' path.

I think my second turning point was when I began questioning why so many books focus on extinction and apocalypse and never tackle the arguably more important topic of survival. If we don't explore ways to survive, then we'll never do it. So looking at survival is useful. But I think survival stories are also far more rich and interesting than extinction stories. Survival is complicated and heroic and surprising. Death is always the same.

As someone who often laments my fellow humans' apparent focus on the short term — a complaint that's often linked to the way we use technology — I was amazed at the long-term-focused science and technology infrastructure you explore in the book. Was there any area of long-term tech research that surprised you the most?

What surprised me over and over again was how a lot of these seemingly far-fetched technologies are already in our grasp. For example, if an asteroid were headed for Earth right now, we'd almost certainly see it coming several years out. We have space-based telescopes that are monitoring over 90 percent of the nearby rocks that could hit us, and astronomers are constantly looking for more. All it would take are a few space probes of the kind we already have to go out into space, meet one of those asteroids, and just push it out of an intercept course with Earth. No need for nukes or fancy-pants antigrav technology. We also have the technology to build carbon-neutral cities and even carbon-neutral factories. It was surprising to me to realize how much of our planet's future really is in the hands of humanity. We don't need to wait for a miracle, or for a new scientific discovery. We just need to implement the knowledge and tools we already have. We can do it!

You write that "science fiction … may be among the most important survival tools we have," essentially because science fiction writers can help us envision what researchers might not be able to imagine. Ray Bradbury's conviction that humans would be on the moon in his lifetime supposedly resulted in him being treated like a crank. Today writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are viewed almost like seers in some quarters. Have we become more accepting of the view that science fiction can be highly relevant to everyday life?

Science has become part of everyday life, and therefore it's no surprise that science fiction is one of our most popular forms of storytelling. We crave stories about science because it helps us make sense of our civilizations. Science fiction can take something incredibly complex — like, say, genetics — and show us how it fits into our personal lives, or how it shapes society. Notice that I'm not talking about science fiction as a genre that predicts the future. There are many kinds of stories that try to tell us about the future, or alternate realities, and science fiction is merely one of them. I don't think that SF's popularity today comes from people seeking answers about the future — they're searching for meaning in the present. That said, I think SF helps us think about what possible consequences might follow from a scientific or technological discovery. Equally as important, SF stories can help us think about society itself as a vast experiment, where each political regime or cultural power bloc is another attempt to solve our problems as a species.

A principle goal of Scatter, Adapt, Remember, you write at one point, is "to get us off this crowded planet and into space." This leads to some of the most insane-sounding stuff in the book — the "space elevator," for instance. You're talking about a million-year time frame, so it's perfectly understandable that you'd venture into territory that is essentially beyond our imaginations. But still: Did you encounter any schemes that were just too crazy to include?

The most implausible ideas I encountered were all about what humans would do in the long term instead of going into outer space. Humanity has a long history of exploring, starting a million years ago when our ancestors first left Africa. By the time Homo sapiens evolved, our ancestors had already invented tools and fire. So we literally never knew a world without technological modifications (however crude). We are a species of tool-makers and explorers, and we're damn good at it. So I find it extremely unlikely that we would give up on exploring space. I think it's even more unlikely that we would choose to upload our brains to computers and live in virtual worlds instead of what we know as the physical world. I'm sure some people will do that, maybe temporarily while traveling through space. But just staying here on Earth when there are so many other awesome places to go? Like Saturn and Alpha Centauri and maybe even other dimensions? Whenever I encountered that idea, I found myself unable to accept it. But that probably reveals my own pro-space prejudices!

Now let's see if I can get you back into a pessimistic mood: Let's say you are right that we humans can persist for another million years. Why do we deserve to persist? What's so great about humans, anyway?

Whether or not we deserve to persist isn't really relevant to whether we will do it. "Deserving" is an ethical concern, not a survival issue. Even if humans are bastards, we are going to survive. We have all the traits of a survival species, just like Lystrosaurus. Saying that we deserve to go extinct doesn't solve our problems — it leads to both moral and practical paralysis. Humans are life forms, and life forms always fight to survive, no matter what. It's in our most fundamental, biological natures. So we'd better accept that, and work on making the future as comfortable as possible. As human animals, we have evolved the ability to plan a better future for ourselves. We can even stop a mass extinction. It's not too late. We don't have to be angels to preserve our ecosystems. We just have to be practical, and not waste our time wondering whether we are good enough to deserve it. Let's not debate the magnitude of our sins. Let's get to work saving the world!

Annalee Newitz is on Twitter at @annaleen; her book is Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

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